Developer: Massive Entertainment || Publisher: Ubisoft || Platform: PS4/Xbox One/PC

Up until very recently, Tom Clancy’s The Division was one of my biggest disappointments in gaming. I didn’t really give it a proper chance until last year, but after spending a decent chunk of time with it I found myself repeatedly disappointed in just about every facet of the game. Fast forward to The Division 2 and I actually found myself being cautiously optimistic. It seemed that Ubisoft Massive were wanting to rectify the mistakes which they had made with the first game by way of a sequel and I was quite willing to give them a chance. Now that it’s out and I’ve given a number of hours of play, I can say that the lessons learned from the previous game have been applied to create a much more compelling title.

Taking place in Washington DC after the outbreak of ‘Green Poison’ (the same outbreak that plagued New York City in the original game), agents of SHD (Strategic Homeland Division) come into the nation’s Capital City to take it back from the looters and anarchists. Three factions have taken over the city: the Hyenas, the True Sons and the Outcasts. As an agent of The Division you’ll have to fight through everything that these factions throw at you if you hope to take the city back. In terms of story, The Division 2 is fairly sub-par, but I am willing to forgive this given that the game’s design is not focused on the story unlike other shared-world looter-shooters like Destiny 2 and Anthem (which have a story focus and don’t do the story very well). The game makes it abundantly clear with its focus on building your character and skills as a player rather than developing its average cast (with their average voice acting), an approach which I actually like as I’m yet to see these games have a proper cohesive story.

So if we’re going to disregard the lackluster story, we’ll move on to the actual game design, which is where The Division 2 really shines. Ubisoft Massive have learned from just about every shortcoming of The Division and have answered just about every issue I had with the original game. The changed flow of the game allows for a much smoother and less disjointed experience, so while hardcore fans of the original game will say it’s lost some of its RPG elements (spending 40 minutes shooting a bloke named Derek is not what I would consider fun or cohesive game design), but the min-maxing of the game as well as crafting the perfect loadout for each scenario is still intact and the perks/mods have been simplified and given more meaning. All the weapons mods have a positive and a lesser-or-equal negative, meaning that deciding on what attachments you put on your weapons require a little more thought. It’s a fine balancing act deciding if the positives outweigh the negatives (I found myself opting for sniper scopes with high headshot damage and low stability because I use bolt-action snipers).

The general mods and perks need more thought now as well. You have three attributes: offensive, defensive and utility. Each node of these specific trees that any piece of gear comes with will add one point into the overall attribute while also giving you the benefit of the detailed boost as well (for example, getting a mask with +10% rifle damage will add 1 point into your offensive attributes as well as the rifle damage bonus). The point of these attributes is for making specific builds. Different pieces of gear will have different talents which (mostly) have attribute requirements, so you’ll have to shift your character’s focus to specific attributes if you wish to use certain talents. To add to this, you have gear mods, which all have a number of attributes and, depending on your talent, can make your build easier or harder to achieve. This design means that there are consequences to your gear choices and it being available from the get-go means that you aren’t overloading the player with obtuse mechanics as a reward for hitting the endgame.

As mentioned before, The Division 2’s general gameplay loops flows a lot smoother due to a shift in design when it comes to enemies and encounters. One of the bigger criticisms that I had for the original game was how laborious taking down the higher level enemies was. Ubisoft Massive’s original idea for difficulty was not to up the pressure on the player or to add some unique mechanics to challenge the player with, their approach was to increase the health of the enemies exponentially. To change things, The Division 2 opts to throw lots of enemies at you at once, forcing you to move around and be a lot more aware of your surroundings. This design is far more conducive to an enjoyable experience as players are not corraled into the one spot and asked to shoot the one target for 20 minutes or more.

Obviously, you don’t want some of the higher-risk enemies to be felled in a single shot without some form of heavily invested build, so how do you counter this? Massive have cleverly shifted the defense of the tankier enemies to breakable armour. Where some enemies have an armour bar that you whittle down (or rip right through if you use a headshot sniper build), other enemies have armour that you need to break in order to expose certain points on their body. Usually, this means breaking a helmet to get the headshot but for the heavies it means breaking any piece of armour to try and get damage in. Do you break the chest piece and chip at their health or do you break their helmet and tear through their health but headshots? I really, really like this design as not only are the artists forced to create an art language that correctly communicates the sturdiness of an enemy but it also keeps players on their toes, having to quickly adjust their aim or focus their fire to counter these armour placements. Prioritising the wrong spot on a class of enemy that rushes you could be fatal.

To complement these design changes, Massive have shifted their level design and really showed their talent. The level design for major encounters is incredible, offering a balanced experience in favour of both the player and AI. Vantage points aren’t so advantageous that you see everything from them but are still beneficial enough that sharpshooters would do well to position themselves there. Perfect amounts of cover that are expertly placed give meaning to your choice. Do you try to move up towards the enemy and expose yourself, potentially copping a fatal blow or do you sit back and play a little more patiently? Massive have outdone themselves and deserve praise for the level design. In saying all this, the level design is not always perfect. The Division 2 loves to encourage players to move to specific points in an arena and then spawn enemies behind that point without proper communication, usually resulting in the player’s death. This is something that can be a major issue in the early game as players adjust to The Division 2’s inconsistent design language. The other issue with the general gameplay design has to do with the weapon balance. It really feels like, towards the endgame, that only a handful of weapons are really viable and veering from that selection of weapons will result in a much tougher game. Designers shouldn’t be punishing players for trying different weapons, they should be encouraging players to use the more powerful and potent weapons in that archetype.

Given the structure of the game, it’s fairly safe to assume that there is an endgame. While it’s not the most fleshed out, what is available at the time of writing is a great level of content for players who don’t just blast through everything. Playing at a fairly steady pace, I’m currently at 88 hours in and have only just now started to hit the currently offered cap to the endgame (though Ubisoft Massive seem to know what they are doing, with a roadmap that is building on a complete game, not fixing a broken product) and I look forward to the future updates that are coming. At the time of writing, the update releasing World Tier 5, heroic missions, weekly invasions and the final stronghold is just about to be dropped and it looks to be making the endgame even more sizable.

The weekly invasions that are incorporated into the endgame deserve their own mention. When you finish the last stronghold in The Division 2 (kind of like a strike in Destiny), the world you worked so hard in liberating becomes invaded by a faction whose name I am not going to say. These invaders are much more tactical and difficult than the other factions you’ve become accustomed to. They’ll rush you, they’ll flank you, they’ll disable your abilities, they’ll do whatever it takes to try and overwhelm you. It’s new, it’s challenging and I love it. Not only does this invasion add a new faction it also makes the world feel much more dynamic. All the factions are constantly warring with each other, trying to take hold of the various control points, firefights break out all over the place and the atmosphere that ensues from hearing all the gunfire in the distance is great. The game already does a good job at presenting itself in virtually everything prior to this but the invasion turns everything up to 11, making the world much more enjoyable. The invasion affects some of the missions as well as the stronghold, and working your way through the missions unlocks the stronghold for each region, and beating a stronghold will increase the world tier level, capping out at a max of 5 once the next update rolls out this week. The weekly invasions will make this more commonplace, which will make the world much more hostile and dangerous.

The Division 2’s art is, to be frank, incredible. The folks over at Ubisoft have had a major focus on letting the artists do their thing, resulting in gorgeous environments like those seen in Far Cry 5, Assassin’s Creed Origins and Rainbow Six: Siege and The Division 2 is no exception. Changing scenery from the boring, bleak environment of New York City, Washington DC has become overgrown as nature slowly takes back what belonged to it. Vistas have stunning greenery, puddles of water ripple with the vibrations of the chaotic environment while also reflecting the landscapes around them. Dust storms impair visibility, and the effect of the dust that has settled on environmental objects that have not been touched in a long time and the accompanying lighting is incredible. There has been an insane amount of detail put into objects that don’t necessarily need it but the game is richer for it, and actually runs better than it should given the persistent amount of small details.

Measured in frames per second (higher is better)

Looking at the benchmark scores (recorded using the game’s provided benchmark utility) the game has some very heavy performance penalties for the higher qualities in graphics. While this is to be expected, the degree to which the penalty is incurred is crazy but looking at the world with these settings gives a little more meaning to the cost. I found myself playing with a mix of medium-high settings and, outside of a few areas with massive view distances, my framerate was generally above 60. The only standout area I encountered for bad performance was the crash site control point, all that water with the reflective surfaces and the lighting as well as the massive viewing plane with all those minor details just completely chewed up my frames. In saying that, the Snowdrop Engine is a technological feat. From what I’ve been able to garner with a lot of discussion with fellow tech nuts, it seems that AMD’s graphics drivers are far more optimised than Nvidia’s (which I’d believe given how half-baked most of the Nvidia drivers are). This would be due in part to Massive working closely with AMD, which benefits a huge variety of people and the changes should trickle positively down into consoles as more optimisations are built (AMD are the people behind the technology that powers the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 systems). I don’t really expect the performance to hit a point of polish similar to the original game, but I can easily see the performance number increasing as they optimise it more and more.

Conclusion

Tom Clancy’s The Division 2 is a far cry from the disappointing game that preceded it. With changes like a more pleasing and communicative art style, gameplay design which is more conducive to a challenging and enthralling experience and some of the best third-person cover-based shooter arena design I have ever witnessed in a game before, Massive have learned from just about every mistake that they made in their previous game. Some issues made their way through in the forms of inconsistent UI language, inconsistent arena design communication, bizarre weapon balance and some technical performance that leaves a bit to be desired, however, the overall game is a great experience. The endgame is really good for players that don’t try to smash through everything within one week and Massive’s roadmap appears to be adding to an already great product. I can highly recommend this game if you’re into looter-shooters.